Factory workers headed up marches across France on Saturday in protest at French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s handling of the economic crisis, but union bosses said the turnout fell short of expectations.
France’s eight main unions were staging their fifth day of action this year to demand stronger measures to cushion families from a global downturn that has plunged the country into recession and sent unemployment soaring.
But union bosses admitted turnout was far lower than on May Day, when up to 1 million people took to the streets, in a sign the protest movement is running out of steam ahead of the traditional French summer break.
Marching behind union leaders from the Place de la Bastille, between 9,000 and 30,000 people joined the main demo in Paris, according to police and union estimates — down from between 65,000 and 160,000 on May 1.
“Turnout is lower than we had hoped,” said Bernard Thibault, leader of France’s biggest union, the CGT, who had aimed to repeat the Labor Day protests.
The head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, conceded the day “will not be a success in terms of numbers,” despite 150 rallies being held across France.
“What matters most today is to make a splash, to say before the summer and our meeting with the president that we have to go further,” Chereque said.
Union leaders, who launched a new round of negotiations with French employers this week, are to meet Sarkozy early next month to review the impact of existing measures to help families through the slowdown.
Sarkozy boosted some social security benefits after the first big union-led protests drew more than 1 million people into the streets in January, to defuse criticism that he was helping banks and carmakers more than ordinary workers.
But the French president has refused to back down from plans to cut tens of thousands of public sector jobs and has repeatedly rejected union calls for an increase in the minimum wage.
Three quarters of the French public say they still support the union demands, but only one third believe they have the power to change government policy, a recent BVA poll showed.
Rail employees, hospital staff and university lecturers angry at reforms joined many of Saturday’s protests, and strikes kept national newspapers off the shelves, but overall disruption was minimal with trains running normally.
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